Florida Ethics Update: Commission on Ethics Dismisses Ethics Charges Brought Against Former Ag Commissioner Nikki Fried
By Caroline Klancke, Esq., Florida Ethics Institute.
During its public session meeting on March 10, 2023, the Florida Commission on Ethics, the constitutionally created independent agency tasked with interpreting and enforcing the State’s ethics laws, approved a Motion to Dismiss Complaint, filed by Elizabeth Miller, an attorney who serves as Advocate for the Commission, thereby dismissing the ethics complaint filed against former Agriculture Commissioner and gubernatorial candidate, Nikki Fried, which alleged that she violated a state financial disclosure law.
The Commission conducted an investigation of the allegations that Fried violated state law by failing to properly disclose personal income information on her 2017 and 2018 financial disclosure filings after an ethics complaint was filed against Fried on June 4, 2021. Following a determination of probable cause by the Commission at its December 3, 2021, meeting the matter was referred to the Division of Administrative Hearings (DOAH) for a full administrative hearing.
The Motion to Dismiss Complaint approved by the Commission today cited to affidavits from her accountant and election attorney who helped prepare the financial-disclosure forms showing her income in 2017 and 2018. The affidavits indicated that Fried reasonably relied on the information she had available to her at the time her filings were completed and the expert preparation and advice of her attorney and accountant in the preparation of her filings. In light of this information, the motion requested that the Ethics Commission dismiss the ethics complaint against Fried at its March 10 meeting based upon a “lack of evidence to proceed.”
During the deliberations at the March 10 Commission meeting, Mrs. Miller explained that Fried’s 2017 and 2018 financial disclosure filings were called into question after she filed numerous amendments to report income from Igniting Florida, LLC, which had been listed as a source of income on all of her filings. She noted that according to Fried’s accountant and election attorney, Fried’s 2017 and 2018 filings disclosed “an accurate snapshot” of Fried’s income from Igniting Florida. However, when additional financial income was received by Fried, she acted proactively to disclose, via amendments to her original filings, additional information gleaned regarding income received. Miller further noted that the amendments “were voluntarily filed and were not the result of a complaint.” Miller stated that there was no evidence that Fried had engaged in faulty bookkeeping or that she had tried to conceal income from public disclosure. Rather, Miller stated that the most plausible reason for the amendments were to accurately disclose additional information received after the 2017 and 2018 filings had been made.
Fried’s attorney Benedict Kuehne, stated at the March 10th meeting that additional discovery conducted in preparation for the DOAH hearing confirmed that Fried had accurately disclosed her income in her 2017 and 2018 filings based upon information she had received from Igniting Florida at the time. However, Kuehne further explained that amendments to those filings were voluntarily filed by Fried after Igniting Florida issued corporate financial restatements.
The dismissal of the ethics complaint was approved by the Commission by a 7 to 1 vote.